Michigan State quickly has gained respect with the way it has performed against top competition this season.
The Spartans went from unranked to No. 12 in the latest AP poll after quality wins against then-No. 4 Kentucky and Villanova last week.
It won’t get any easier this holiday weekend. Michigan State will face unbeaten and No. 18 Alabama in the opener of the Phil Knight Invitational on Thursday in Portland, Ore.
The winner will return Friday to face the victor of the UConn-Oregon game, which will be played on Thursday. The finals and consolation games of the tournament will be Sunday.
The Spartans will get another test when they face Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge next Wednesday.
“We can play good and go 0-3,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of the Portland event. “This is a very, very, very, very good tournament, and so we’ll see.
“Next week, I could come back here on Monday and look like death warmed over because we got in at 6 in the morning. I’ll have a press conference and go to Notre Dame a day later and everything changes. But right now, what’s not going to change is they’re working hard.”
Izzo’s club posted an 86-77 win in double overtime vs. Kentucky on Tuesday and held off a late Villanova charge to eke out a 73-71 win on Friday.
The Spartans have three scorers averaging in double figures, led by forward Joey Hauser (14 points per game).
Izzo expects a rugged and taxing weekend for his club.
“Oregon is the biggest team I’ve seen, and UConn is a team we played last year and we know a little bit about, but they’ve improved greatly,” he said. “So, either way, win or lose the first one and we’re going to have our hands full with the second one. And then we could have our hands full with another Villanova or it could be (North) Carolina. So this tournament is second to none with the teams that are in it.”
Alabama hasn’t played since a 104-62 home victory over Jacksonville State on Friday. The Crimson Tide’s other wins have come against Longwood, Liberty and South Alabama, so they’ll step up in class with the opponents they’ll face in the tournament.
“It is great to be 4-0 going into the stretch we have next week, and it’s going to be a pretty tough stretch there with the teams we will see in Portland,” coach Nate Oats said.
Brandon Miller led Alabama to its latest victory with 28 points and eight rebounds. Nimari Burnett and Mark Sears had 18 points apiece.
Alabama led by 12 at halftime, then dominated the second half. The Crimson Tide finished with 21 made 3-pointers.
“That was nice to make shots. I thought our defense picked up in the second half,” Oats said. “We didn’t really start opening it up until late in the first half. We kind of challenged our guys at halftime on defense. The first four minutes of the second half still weren’t great, but the next 16 minutes after that first media timeout in the second half, they scored 14 points the rest of the way.”
Miller leads Alabama in scoring (20.3 points per game) and rebounding (9.3). Sears is averaging 15.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
–Field Level Media